Why community theater, or: Why my couch has been onstage more than I have

Greater Minnesota | Process

This August, as I was cleaning the bathrooms at the Paradise Center for the Arts in Faribault before the Merlin Players’ production of Miss Nelson Is Missing, I mused to myself about how glamorous is this life-in-the-theater thing. Then, of course, I knew I must be losing my sanity.

Why do we in community theaters, and even the smaller professional houses, go through so much toil and effort to create something as transitory, time-consuming and thankless as a play? It’s not sculpture that could last perhaps for generations, and it’s often hundreds and hundreds of hours of work for anywhere from 10 to 100 volunteers. Why do we do it?

Later that month, I asked this question at the Minnesota Association of Community Theatres’ board of directors bimonthly meeting in Barrett, Minn. (As is our custom, we were preparing to take in the local community theater’s production. This month, it was the Prairie Wind Players’ Always... Patsy Cline.)

“Why are you involved in community theater out here in the far reaches of the Minnesota lake country?” I asked.

“There is something wrong with us—in a good way,” someone said.

“If I wasn’t doing something good, I’d be doing something bad, and my mother always told me to do good,” joked another.

“I enjoy the social connections. But the first time I made an audience laugh—I can’t describe the feeling.”

“Building set is so different from what I do everyday: accounting.”

“There is nothing like an opening-night high.”

“I have always been into community service, and this is my latest outlet. When an audience laughs, even though I’m running the light board, I’m part of it.

“I can’t get out of it. They know where I live.”

First, before I continue, I should try to define community theater: no easy thing to do. There are as many models as there are types of visual arts. Duluth Playhouse and Rochester Civic Theatre have paid artistic directors and paid staff. Often these staff people have college degrees in directing and design. They also have paid technicians. On the other hand, theaters like Curtain Call in New Prague/Montgomery or the Paradise Community Theatre in Faribault have no paid staff at all and are run entirely by  volunteers. Some theaters do one show a year while others have million-dollar budgets. Still, most theaters do pay stipends to directors and some other technical people. In my experience, this works out to be about 20 cents an hour. So obviously we don’t do it to get rich.

I don’t believe it’s about ego either. Although the occasional amateur actor thinks he or she is the community’s very own Al Pacino or Meryl Streep, those people are rare. Instead, community theater brings people together like no other group activity I’ve ever experienced. I have friends of all ages from so many different demographic and ethnic groups. The community theater world is not like a gated community where you have to have the right income level or car to enter. The only requirement is talent, a desire to work hard, and have fun.

Yes, I do a lot of teaching when I direct in community theater. Some actors have never learned how to create the inner life of a character. They have never been required to write a biography of their characters or to think about what it is their characters really want. Of course, it is exciting to work with a group of talented, seasoned actors who are so experienced and familiar that you have a shorthand with each other. (We have that at the Merlin Players in Faribault, too, by the way.) But sometimes, when I find someone in the audition process that has great raw talent but not much experience, it is so rewarding to help that person discover within his or herself skills they never knew they possessed. After a 25-year career in the professional theater as an actor and director, I choose to spend my time with a community of artists that gives so freely of time and talent that I’m left with a sense of gratefulness and wonder.

My friend Nancy Hockenberry, a well-known actor in Albert Lea, describes what I do as “helping everyone to stand on tip-toe.” It’s one of the loveliest compliments I have ever received.

I know that you may be thinking its easy to be a “big fish in a small town,” but I genuinely love being talked to in grocery stores about some production I directed. I love being called “that play lady.” And it is risky. We put ourselves out there for criticism in that very same grocery line; I have learned to take the bad with the good. In the 1990s, for example, I directed a production of Fiddler on the Roof in Kenyon, Minn. What does a group of Norwegian farmers have in common with a 19th-century Jewish community in Russia, you ask? It’s that magic word, community. When they sang (which they did beautifully—Norwegian, don’cha know), they sang with an ache in their hearts because they thought of what it would be like to be forced out their own homes that they love so much. The reality was that in the deepest part of their humanity they weren’t so different after all.

In this way, community theater feeds a hunger for culture and arts in towns and cities across the United States, and indeed throughout the world. It is usually affordable and educates an audience about what theater and live performance is. In fact, community theater is often the starting place for many professional actors and technical people. A lot of them fell in love with theater in a community musical, comedy or drama. These people may then travel to a larger city to see a professional touring show or buy a ticket to the Guthrie Theater or a smaller house like the History Theatre in St. Paul. Those theaters should be paying community theaters for cultivating audience and future performers for them. Plus most people will tell you that it’s great fun to see your neighbor up there acting out in a way they never see in their daily lives.

So, if you move to a new community and you are longing to make a connection with people and find friendship, I suggest you get to your next community theater production. Volunteer to usher, sell tickets, paint and build sets, sew a costume or, if you have the right stuff, appear on the stage. You will find a group of people who are almost always welcoming and great to know. Don’t try to win the starring role the first time out. You may even help clean that bathroom. However you do it, ease your way in and you may be surprised at the wonderful things that can happen to you.